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       Eight Keys, p.4

           Suzanne LaFleur
 
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(3) School has been miraculously canceled, but no one told you.

  Who am I kidding? I missed the bus. Again.

  Today there wasn’t actually no one at the bus stop. Franklin was there, sitting by the side of the road, knees pulled up, baseball cap and backpack on. When he was crunched up like that with his head down, you couldn’t see his pale hair or pale skin or pale blue eyes, or his faded freckles.

  If you get to the bus stop in the morning and just Franklin is there, it means one of two things:

  (1) Franklin missed the bus, too.

  (2) Franklin was there when the bus came, but you weren’t, so he waited to keep you company.

  Franklin’s a good friend that way. Not that we talk about things like that. How Franklin would miss school just to make sure I’m okay. If he got in trouble—well, that was his choice, wasn’t it? He didn’t have to wait for me.

  “Hi, dorkus,” I greeted him.

  “Hi, Elise,” he answered, ignoring the “dorkus.” That was new, the name-calling. Everyone in middle school threw around hurtful names like they were meaningless, so why shouldn’t I? Franklin hadn’t picked up the habit, but he didn’t seem offended by it.

  “You don’t have your sling or your bandage.”

  “Yesterday the doctor said I didn’t have to wear them anymore. He said kids heal pretty fast.”

  I sat down as Franklin examined his watch, with its big navy face and large white numbers.

  “Damage?” I asked.

  “Bus comes—seven-forty-eight. School starts—eight-fifteen. Now—eight-twenty-four.”

  “Dung cookies.”

  After attendance in the morning, if you aren’t there, and no one from home has reported your absence, the school calls your house. That’s how I always get found out. After that first morning, I never felt good trudging home. It seemed like this happened a lot, although I wasn’t sure how many times. Five, maybe?

  Sure enough, it was only a few minutes—“eight-thirty,” Franklin reported—until Uncle Hugh came puffing up the hill on his bike. We watched him pedal in silence, his cheeks turning red above his white beard. His beige button-up shirt and tan shorts billowed as the wind caught them. Finally, he was close enough to stop and talk to us without having to shout. He said, “Hop on, Cricket.”

  I still fit, sort of, in the basket on the front of Uncle Hugh’s bike. The basket digs into the backs of my legs and they swing around as we go, but sitting sideways is okay.

  I sighed and climbed into the basket. Instead of continuing up the road to school, Uncle Hugh turned around.

  “Where are we going?” I asked.

  “Home,” Uncle Hugh said. “You too, Franklin, I spoke with your mother.”

  Franklin trotted along with us. With me in the basket, Uncle Hugh was moving very slowly, pedaling just fast enough to keep us from tipping over.

  “Why don’t you let me walk with Franklin?” I asked. I might have been a toddler strapped into a plastic seat.

  “This way,” said Uncle Hugh, “I can keep an eye on where you’re going.”

  Uncle Hugh didn’t seem angry as he parked the bike and gave me a hand hopping out of the basket, but he didn’t say anything as he turned and walked into the house.

  I looked at Franklin, who shrugged. We hurried after Uncle Hugh. He led us into the kitchen. He opened three cream sodas and set the bottles on the table. Franklin and I dropped our backpacks and sat down.

  Uncle Hugh took a long drink.

  “Listen, Cricket,” he started. “We’ve had very few problems as you’ve grown up, would you agree?”

  “I guess so.”

  “You’re about to be twelve next week.”

  “I know.”

  “I think that we have suddenly come to a problem.”

  “About me turning twelve?”

  “Turning twelve is no problem. But you are starting to have more responsibility, right?”

  I shrugged.

  Uncle Hugh addressed Franklin. “Are you not expected to be more responsible, now that you’re in middle school?”

  “Well …” Franklin put down the bottle he’d been slurping from. “We have to get to our classes on our own and remember our homework and books and supplies.”

  I rolled my eyes.

  “That was my impression, too,” Uncle Hugh said. “Now, my dear Elise, you have me quite worried. How are you to learn to be responsible to get to your own classes and remember all your homework and books if you can’t even get to school?”

  He waited. I looked down at the soda bottle I was twisting in my hands. “I don’t know.”

  “Franklin, how long have you been in sixth grade?”

  “Three weeks and three days.”

  “Right. Cricket, you missed the bus on six different mornings. That’s a lot. Franklin, how many minutes does it take to walk from here to the bus stop?”

  “Six and a half.”

  Uncle Hugh nodded. “According to Bess, Elise, you weren’t late when you had breakfast, and you left with twenty minutes to get to the bus. So something happened on the way to the bus that took longer than it should have.”

  I didn’t know how to explain how lately I had had more thoughts than ever before whirring through my head and sometimes when I stopped to think about them I lost track of time. Or how Aunt Bessie didn’t know that I’d left my math book and homework in my room and had to go back for them. Or how it was easy to drag my feet on the way to school because it wasn’t like anyone there besides Franklin even cared that I existed.

  Uncle Hugh seemed to soften as I took longer and longer to figure out what to say. Franklin finished his drink and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Can I have another soda, Uncle Hugh?”

  “Don’t be ridiculous,” Uncle Hugh said. “It’s nine in the morning. Your mother will have me shot. Have some water.”

  Franklin shrugged and got a glass of water.

  A car honked outside.

  “That’s your mother,” Uncle Hugh said. “She’s going to take you to school. Get your stuff.”

  Franklin swung his backpack on. “Elise, you coming?”

  “No, don’t worry,” said Uncle Hugh. When Franklin had left, he said, “You’re going to stay home, catch up on some of your work, and figure this out. There must be a reason why you don’t want to go.”

  Was Franklin’s mother going to be mad at him? She never seems to get mad about anything.

  “Are you or Aunt Bessie going to start walking me to the bus stop and putting me on the bus?” I asked.

  “What would you learn then? What would be different?”

  “Nothing.”

  Uncle Hugh isn’t really the mad type, either. He’s the let’s-learn-something-from-this type.

  “First, head to your room. You’re not being punished. I just want you to do some thinking in your own space, okay?”

  Soon Aunt Bessie slipped into my room and shut the door.

  “Hugh told me he wants to talk to you and I thought, Men can be so obtuse sometimes, so I decided to come in myself to see if you wanted a woman to talk to.”

  I laughed. “Aunt Bessie! It’s nothing like that!”

  “That’s a relief,” she said, sitting down on my bed with me. “But still, why talk to men at all when girls are just such better listeners?”

  I put my head on her soft shoulder. Aunt Bessie’s the best.

  “Now,” she said, “what’s keeping you from getting to school?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “Teachers?”

  “Maybe. None of them ever call on me. No one holds up my work and says to the rest of the class, ‘Your work should be like this!’ None of them give me check-pluses, just plain old checks. They all think I’m stupid.”

  “You aren’t stupid,” Aunt Bessie said. “But you are going from a small school, where all your teachers knew you, to a big school, and it’s a lot harder to stand out. What about friends?”

  “What friends?”

  “Come now, L
ise, you have friends.”

  “I don’t. Most of the kids from my old school are hanging out with other people or they’re in different classes, so I don’t see them. I was never really friends with any of them anyway.”

  “You have Franklin.”

  “Lot of good he is.”

  “Has something happened with Franklin?”

  “No,” I said.

  No one likes me because I’m friends with that dweebus Franklin. He makes me look like a baby.

  “It’s not fair,” I said out loud.

  “What’s not, sweetie?”

  It wasn’t fair for no one to like me because I’m friends with Franklin. I can not-like Franklin sometimes if I want to, but it’s not right for anyone else to not-like Franklin; they don’t even know him. And it’s definitely not fair for them to not-like me because of him. Not fair.

  Really, though, the worst thing would be if they didn’t like me because of me. Maybe I was a baby.

  I was trying to do my late math homework when a car came down the driveway, so I went out on the front porch and leaned on the railing. Annie parked the car, got out, and waved. “Hello!”

  I lifted one of my elbows enough to wave back.

  Aunt Bessie came flying out of the front door.

  “Annie!” She ran down the steps to hug Annie. I always thought it was funny that Aunt Bessie had a sister who was almost twenty years younger.

  “Elise! Aren’t you going to come down here and welcome our family?” Aunt Bessie called up to me.

  I walked slowly off the porch.

  Annie opened the backseat and Aunt Bessie swooped in, unbuckling the baby and lifting her from the car. Then she started cooing. Ava let out a happy shriek. She looked pretty cute. I didn’t go anywhere near her.

  “How are you, Elise?” Annie asked, putting an arm around me. Her eyes were on the baby. I’d never seen anyone look so lovingly at anything.

  “All right.”

  “You can hold her, too, if you like. Let’s get her inside, though, Bess; she’ll need to be fed. She’ll get cranky soon.”

  “Of course, of course,” Aunt Bessie said. She started moving toward the porch with Ava. “Are you hungry?” she asked in a high-pitched voice. “Are you hungry? Yes? Yes, you are?” She called back, “Elise, help Annie with her things!”

  I guess Aunt Bessie had forgotten about my bum thumb.

  Annie’s trunk was packed full. She started pulling luggage out. I grabbed the handle of a duffel bag with my left hand.

  “Look at your long hair!” she exclaimed. “How beautiful!”

  “I’m thinking of cutting it,” I said. My hair is over three feet long. I know because Franklin measured it for me, with a ruler.

  “What are you doing home at this time of day?”

  “Don’t ask.”

  “Okay. I’m glad you’re home today to greet me, whatever the reason. I’m so excited to be here with you,” Annie said. “You’ll get to be like Ava’s big sister. I know you’ll just love her.”

  What’s there to love about a baby? They just cry and make messes.

  I hauled Annie’s things into the extra downstairs bedroom while she nursed Ava in the living room. That was something I didn’t want to see. It took about five trips to carry all the bags because I only used my good hand. When that was done, Uncle Hugh showed up with a crib, a changing table, and a special set of plastic drawers. I helped him set up all that stuff as much as I could considering my thumb. It took ages. Uncle Hugh left for a minute, but I was still looking at the new furniture when Annie came into the room, without Ava.

  “Where’s the baby?”

  “She’s sleeping. Bess is holding her. Thank you for your help in here.” Annie started to move things around the room. “There.” She wiped her forehead when everything was in place. “We’ll get Ava and see how she likes her new bed. Do you want to hold her?”

  “No thanks,” I said. “My hands are dirty from putting all that stuff together.”

  “Elise, I need you!” Uncle Hugh called.

  “Gotta go.”

  Phew.

  I found Uncle Hugh on the porch.

  “How’s your day going?” he asked.

  “Uh, fine, we just set up all that furniture together.”

  “I mean your thinking-about-school day.”

  “Oh, that.” I sat down on the steps. “I guess that’s fine, too.”

  “Did you figure anything out?”

  “Not really.”

  “So you wasted the day?”

  “Don’t worry. I would have wasted it at school anyway.”

  Uncle Hugh nearly turned purple. I’d really done it now.

  “I’m sorry,” I said right away.

  “Go to your room. Now. You will make a list of your responsibilities with regards to school. I will be there in twenty minutes to read it.”

  I didn’t need telling twice.

  Right on time, Uncle Hugh knocked and opened my door.

  “Hello, Cricket.”

  “Hello, Uncle,” I replied from my desk, bent over the paper I was writing on.

  Uncle Hugh pulled up a chair. He seemed to have calmed down a lot. “So, what have you come up with?”

  “Only three things.”

  “Good, let’s hear them.”

  “One, get to the bus on time. Two, do my homework. Three, bring the homework to school.”

  “Two and three are separate things?”

  “Yes.”

  “Ah. Nothing else? Nothing like: remember my gym clothes?”

  “I keep them in my locker so I always have them.”

  “Okay. If these are your main responsibilities, we will use them to set a couple goals. Can you, for one week, make it to the bus every day? Hand in every assignment?”

  “I’ll try.”

  “Then we’ll set new ones. Reach for a little at a time.”

  He had me write down the goals, put the date at the top, and tape them to my desk.

  School must have ended, because Franklin showed up on the porch. He wasn’t being noisy, Franklin never was, but I hurried out and shushed him. “The baby’s sleeping. Be quiet.”

  “Annie and Ava are here?”

  “Yep. And we have to be very quiet, so you’d better go.”

  “I just got here.”

  “Okay, fine, you can stay. But don’t make a sound.” I let him in.

  “Can I see the baby?” he asked.

  “No, she’s sleeping.”

  Annie showed up beside us in the living room. “It’s okay, you can peek in.”

  “No thanks,” I said.

  “I’ve never seen a baby up close,” Franklin protested.

  “You’ll see her later. She’ll be here every day.”

  “Ignore Elise, Franklin, and come see her if you want to.” Annie led Franklin to her room, and I tromped along, not wanting to be left behind. I stayed in the doorway while Annie and Franklin stood over the crib.

  “How old is she?”

  “Five months.”

  “She looks nice.”

  “Yeah, she does.”

  We backed up into the hallway and Annie left the door open just a tiny bit. “I want to be able to hear if she wakes up.”

  “Come on, Franklin,” I said. I led him into my room and closed the door.

  “Why don’t you like the baby?” he asked.

  “Who says I don’t?”

  “You’re like, afraid, of the baby.”

  “Babies are boring.”

  Babies make me nervous. If they’re screaming because something is wrong, they can’t tell you what to do about it. I’m afraid I’ll break them when I touch them. And they make me think of my mother.

  Franklin shrugged and reached into his backpack. “I brought your homework. There’s tons!”

  “Great,” I said, taking the stack of books and papers. “How’d you get in my locker?”

  “Combination: fifteen-seventeen-seven.”

  “Ho
w do you know that?”

  “I watched you do it once and remembered in case I ever needed to get in there. And look, I did.”

  “Doofus. Anything interesting happen at school today?”

  “We learned about magnets in science. We got to play with little metal shavings and watch them collect on a horseshoe magnet.”

  “No, I mean, with people at school.”

  “Not that I know of.”

  Who’d he sit with at lunch? Probably Diana from the bus, with her cat sweaters and gymp key chains and plastic thermos of chocolate milk. I hated it when he sat with Diana.

  Franklin settled in at my desk without mentioning the new goals taped there, opened his math book, and labeled his paper. “Aren’t you going to start?”

  “Yeah, sure.” I got out my science book and the worksheet. “Will you help me with the stuff I missed in class? I don’t really know that much about magnets.”

  “Okay,” Franklin said. “I was thinking, since we sometimes do our homework together, maybe we could split the books we bring home, so our bags aren’t that heavy.”

  “Good thinking.” I sat down on my bed and opened the science book in my lap. “But I never know where my stuff is. You’d end up not able to do your homework if I forgot something.”

  Franklin nodded. “Can I have a snack?”

  I shrugged. “Go get something.” I should have gone with him, after he was being nice about the homework stuff, but sometimes it feels like he just comes here to eat.

  Franklin headed to the kitchen. I leaned my head back against the wall. Maybe things would be different when my birthday came. Maybe I’d automatically seem older, cooler, less of a baby. Maybe I’d be smarter and schoolwork would be easier.

  Maybe things would be different when I was twelve.

  I Make It to School

  The next day I made it to the bus on time.

  Amanda got to our locker first, like every morning, because she doesn’t take the bus.

  “Where’s your boyfriend?”

  “He’s not my boyfriend.” I reached up to put my lunch on the top shelf.

  Amanda stopped me. “My lunch is up there. Put yours in the main section.” She took my bag and tossed it onto the pile of books below. “Guess I don’t need these.” She dropped the rest of her books into the locker, squishing my lunch.

  I was still staring at her when her crew of three girls showed up. I had learned their names were Kate, Lindsay, and Caroline, and all four of them came from the same elementary school. Amanda never let anyone, her friends or Franklin, see the lunch-smashing.

 
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